Discussing dysfunctions within a minority culture that already experiences oppression and discrimination by mainstream white society is a difficult thing to do. Many women of color—Asian, Indian, and Black women understand sexist treatment from both dominant white society and from their cultures. Black women have courageously written about the unique oppression as women of color from Sojourner Truth’s Ain’t I a Woman to Kimberlé Crenshaw’s pathbreaking article in the late1980s, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Anti-discrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics,” to the writings of Audre Lorde, and bell hooks to name a few. These and many other women of color have provided the foundation for analyses that examine how multiple identities such as race, class and gender result in increased oppression for women of color that are separate from those of white women. The same is true for Latinas.
The unequal treatment of Latinos in many aspects of traditional Latino culture is one of the greatest dysfunctions of our culture. And my study on Latino lawyers demonstrates that even for Latina professionals, this dysfunction does not easily go away. It is evident within the law firm and it is also evident in many traditional Latino families.
For example, Josefa one of the Latina attorneys I interviewed had this to say about sexism in the firm environment:
I see women more involved. Men often get the limelight, but women do the work….What’s ironic is that women are not reaping the benefits and success that men generally experience as a result of community involvement. All you have to do is look at the rate of women making partnership in firms. The percentage is absolutely dismal.
Reflecting on her time in law firms, Josefa commented,
There is such isolation. Even after you ‘make it,’ you are probably the only Latina or the only woman of color. You are always viewed as the outsider, with little support to help you succeed. No one tells you of the land mines because, frankly, you make them uncomfortable and they really want you to go away. . . . Perhaps it is our past that prevents Latinas from fitting into a profession where people frequently come from very privileged backgrounds.
Latinas experience sexism in our culture as well. As one Latina respondent shared with me,
When I was in law school and I’d go to Latino dances with my friends, we would have to lie to the guys so they would ask us to dance again.
She and her friends discovered that once they revealed they were law school students they would not get asked to dance again. So they developed the strategy of telling the Latinos whom they were interested in dancing with again that they were secretaries in order to be asked for more dances. Sharing this experience made her laugh. However, she quickly stopped laughing and said that one of her greatest personal challenges has been with her traditional Latino family stating it has been very difficult “to be taken seriously . . . being taken seriously that this was my career choice and that I would be good at it.”
Many of the Latina respondents also expressed feeling trapped between unreasonably rigid gender roles in Latino culture and stereotypes and limitations from mainstream society. As one Latina attorney from Seattle stated:
I think people need to understand the challenges of becoming a lawyer in spite of our culture that expects different from us, from our families that expect less from us, from our husbands that are not always supportive. The fact that in our culture humbleness is a virtue but not in American culture. That culturally we sometimes feel caught between acting as advocates for Latinos in an American system or acting as Americans representing foreigners.
In fairness, many Latinos recognize the problem with traditional sexist roles in Latino culture as well. One of the male Latino attorneys relayed the following experience during one of his volunteer Latino youth educational outreach efforts:
One thing during undergraduate work at the business school, once in a while they sent out brochures and those kinds of things, and we asked high school students from Eastern Washington, especially [which] is where we were trying to focus. You know, get them here to the U [the University of Washington] so they can experience it. And I remember one response from this high school girl that she really wanted to come but her parents felt that a girl’s position was in the house. So you had those cultural barriers as well.
Rigid gender roles hurt the entire Latino community, are recognized by both Latinos and Latinas, and unfortunately, are also perpetuated by both Latinos and Latinas. Until we face this dysfunction in our culture we hold ourselves back. I am not saying that white culture isn’t sexist, but Latinas and other women of color have to fight for equality, respect, and freedom not just within dominant mainstream society, but also within their own families and culture.
We have to fight being oppressed and controlled at many levels. And my study on Latino lawyers’ experience underscores this huge problem. There is a long entrenched historical pattern of unequal treatment and even the devaluing of Latinas in traditional Latino culture. Ignoring these challenges within our culture will only keep us all down.